"They're all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don't think he's Jewish?
Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that.
Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself."
(Sammy Klayman to Josef Kavalier in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, pg. 585)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a novel about magic, manhood, superheroes, and growing up Jewish in America in the 1930s and 1940s. Sammy Klayman is a young man from Brooklyn with a love for pulp fiction and comic books, and is struggling with his sexual identity. Josef Kavalier is an apprentice magician and an artist who escapes Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia by hiding in a coffin along with the Golem of Prague. The novel traces the two cousins from 1939 to 1954 as they break into publishing and confront love, war, and loss.
About the Author
Born in Washington, DC in 1963, Michael Chabon was in the Creative Writing program at UC Irvine when his master's thesis, a story about sexual and intellectual coming-of-age, became the bestselling novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988). He spent the next five years writing a novel about baseball and architecture, which was never published. His 1995 novel, Wonder Boys, about a frustrated professor, was adapted by Hollywood into a film starring Michael Douglas and Robert Downey, Jr.
An avid comic book reader as a child, Chabon gave up comics at the age of 15 to pursue "serious" reading. After Wonder Boys, he began looking to the world of the golden age comic book writers as a venue to explore Jewishness and masculinity. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the Bay Area Book Reviewer's Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize.
Chabon lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their children.
Summary of the Novel
The 636 pages of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are divided into six sections, as outlined below.
Part I: the Escape Artist
This section recounts Josef Kavalier's apprenticeship as a magician and escapist under the tutelage of Bernard Kornblum, and how Joe and his younger brother Thomas almost drowned in the river Muldau during a failed Houdiniesque experiment. Kornblum belongs to a secret circle which has guarded the Golem of Prague since the sixteenth century. To prevent its confiscation by the Nazis, the Golem is disguised as a human corpse and shipped out of Czechoslovakia. Joe is smuggled out inside the same coffin.
Part II: A Couple of Boy Geniuses
Sammy Klayman introduces his refugee cousin Joe to pulps and comic books, and discovers that Joe has considerable talent as an artist. The two enlist a team of out-of-work artists and begin their venture publishing comic books.
Part III: The Funny-Book War
Kavalier and Clay's catalog of successful comic book titles grows, while Joe is unsuccessful obtaining visas for his family still in Czechoslovakia. In the guise of his fictional creation -- the Escapist -- Joe goes to battle against Carl Ebling, president of the New York Chapter of the Aryan American League. The two cousins meet and befriend Rosa Saks.
Part IV: The Golden Age
As Kavalier and Clay hit the pinnacle of their success, the two cousins each have romantic liaisons. As the World Fair commences in Queens, and a world war rages in Europe, the two cousins encounter Salvadore Dali and Orson Welles. Joe takes the stage as magician in an act billed as "The Amazing Cavalieri." This section ends with shame for Sammy and tragedy for Joe.
Part V: Radioman
Another series of escapes by Joe Kavalier: he runs from tragedy by joining the Navy (Radioman, second class). Set in Antarctica, where he is stationed at a Naval base, Joe survives the war against all odds.
Part VI: The League of the Golden Key
Set ten years after the events of the previous section, Sammy and Rosa and Tommy are living in Bloomtown, New York (an idealized planned suburb modeled after Levittown, NY). Meanwhile, as the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency is mounting its fight against the comic book industry, Joe Kavalier makes a mysterious reappearance. Joe had secretly returned to New York where he has holed himself up in an office in the Empire State Building, putting finishing touches on a mammoth graphic novel about the Golem. Tommy meets Joe at a magic shop, and Sammy is subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Subcommittee.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
- About Sam Klayman, we are told: "Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews; Samuel Louis Klayman was all three. He was seventeen when the adventures began: bigmouthed, perhaps not quite as quick on his feet as he liked to imagine, and tending to be, like many optimists, a little excitable? He slouched, and wore clothes badly: he always looked as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money." (p. 3). Discuss this description. In what ways is it typical of the stereotypical Jewish boy?
- What is the appeal of Houdini to depression era Jewish boys?
- The theme of escape runs throughout the novel. What are Sammy and Joe escaping from? What is their destination?
- Discuss how the following passage draws an analogy between the creation of the Golem and the writing of superhero comics: "Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina's delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and kabbalistic chitchat -- was literally talked into life. Kavalier and Clay -- whose Golem was to be formed of black lines and four-color dots of the lithographer -- lay down, lit the first of five dozen cigarettes they were to consume that afternoon, and started to talk." (p. 119).
- What role does the Golem have in the story? What symbol or analogy might he represent? Why did Chabon include this legend in his novel?
- Jewish lore suggests that words have great powers, including the powers to give life and take life away. Read Chabon's essay "The Recipe For Life" (www.home.earthlink.net/~mchabon/golem.html), which equates fiction writing to creating a golem. In what ways did words affect the lives of the characters in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? How did the words in Chabon's various novels affect his own life and the way people perceived him?
- What is a superhero?
- Are superhero stories mythological in nature?
- What is it about the experience of young men that inspires superhero stories?
- To what extent might this be especially true for Jewish young men?
- In what ways are the experiences of Joe Kavalier parallel to the events in the Superman myth?
- In what ways is Joe's work as a comic book artist modeled after the work, styles, and attitudes of Jack Kirby and Will Eisner? Look at examples of Eisner's graphic novels to get an idea of what Joe Kavalier's Golem book might have looked like. In what ways did Kirby, Eisner, and the fictional Kavalier break out of the box and take comics to a new level?
- There are three characters named "Tom" in the book: Joe's younger brother, Rosa's son, and the fictional comic book character the Escapist (Tom Mayflower). Discuss and compare the roles of these three characters.
- What is the significance of names and name-changes in the novel? Discuss how the idea of names is significant in the legend of the Golem.
- How was the comic book story of the Escapist a reflection of Joe's own life and longing?
- Sammy has a relationship with an actor named Tracy Bacon. What is the attraction between the two men? How does Tracy -- in name and person -- represent a forbidden fruit to Sammy?
- How does part five ("Radioman") present the theme of escape? How many things is Joe escaping from? What is he escaping to?
Background Information: Jews in the Comic Book Industry
A very high proportion of the men (and women) involved in comic book publishing from the 1930s through the 1970s were Jewish. A roll call of writers, artists, and editors might be mistaken for a synagogue membership roster with names like Sheldon Moldoff, Marv Wolfman, Paul Levitz, Len Wein, Harvey Kurtzman, Gil Kane, Bill Finger, Lou Fine, and Jenette Kahn. A few of the prominent Jews in the field are:
Jerry Siegel (b. 1914, Cleveland, OH) and Joseph Shuster (b. 1914, Toronto, CN), cocreators of Superman, were in a large part, the inspiration behind the characters Sammy and Joe. They revolutionized the comic book industry with their superhero creation, but by 1949 they had lost all rights to the property and received no royalties or acknowledgments until the mid-1970s.
Stan Lee (b. 1922 as Stanley Leiber). In 1939, he was hired by Martin Goodman, a cousin by marriage and publisher Timely Comics (later renamed Atlas and finally Marvel Comics). For much of the next 20 years he was editor and chief writer, working with a stable of artists that included Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, and others. In the early 1960s, Lee remade Marvel Comics by introducing a new slate of titles?The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, and The X-Men among them?that introduced a new level of pathos and humanness to the superheroes.
Jack Kirby (b. 1917 in New York's Lower East Side as Jacob Kurtzberg). An artist noted for his distinctive stylized figures, Kirby was the creator or co-creator of Captain America, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Silver Surfer, and The X-Men.
Julius Schwartz (b. 1915). Long time editor at DC Comics, "Julie" was an accomplished science fiction fan before entering the comic book realm. (At the age of 15, he was editing one of the first science fiction "fanzines" ever published). He was a guiding force behind the "Silver Age" of comics and helped such titles as Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, The Justice League of America, and many other super-hero and science fiction titles.
Will Eisner (b. 1917, Brooklyn, NY). Creator of Blackhawk and Sheena Queen of the Jungle, mentor of Jules Feiffer, and creator of The Spirit, a tongue-in-cheek phantom crime-fighter with a distinctly Jewish sense of humor. In 1978, Eisner revolutionized comic by coining the term "graphic novel" to describe A Contract With God, a novel in comic form that tells the saga of several Jewish families living in a Bronx tenement in the 1930s. He has continued to write graphic novels dealing with the drama of Jewish life, anti-Semitism, loneliness, and old age with To the Heart of the Storm (1991), Dropsie Avenue (1995), Invisible People, and others.
Also of note:
Dr. Fredric Wertham (1895-1981), who appeared in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, was a real person. He authored Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a book-length indictment of the comic book industry that linked comic books with juvenile delinquency. He showed how comic books in the late 1940s and early 1950s often depicted sexuality and graphic violence that would be considered gruesome and grotesque by most standards even today. But the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which used Wertham's book and his testimony, attacked EC editor William Gaines in a McCarthy-like blacklisting fiasco.
Background Information: Superhero Stories as Jewish Legends
Clark Kent is the ultimate Jewish boy ideal: to all appearances he is a bumbling nebbish. But under his eyeglasses and conservative suit he is a super man. He is fast, strong, endowed with x-ray vision; he can fly, protect the weak from bullies and criminals, and is the object of Lois Lane's affections. Beneath his disguise, Clark Kent is Kal El (Hebrew for "Vessel of God" or "Voice of God"), a refugee from another world who, like Moses, was saved from death, hidden by his parents in a vessel and sent to earth. As Pharaoh's daughter did for Moses, Martha and Jonathan Kent found the child and raised him as their own. As Clark grew up, he eventually accepted his responsibility as a beacon for justice.
The creation of two Jewish men from Cleveland, Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel. Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1, published by National Periodicals (later renamed DC Comics) in spring of 1938.
It's not surprising that Michael Chabon was among those asked to write the script for the Twentieth Century Fox film version of the X-Men (although ultimately Chabon's script was not used). The X-Men mythos grew directly out of the WWII experience, in part because of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, giving rise to the Godzilla myth and other legends of genetic mutation. But in an even larger part the X-Men storyline is a metaphor for the horrors of the persecution that the Nazis inflicted on Jews and other people they deemed to be inferior. The X-Men first appeared in a Marvel comic book bearing that name in September 1963, written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Under the direction of Len Wein, The X-Men was revamped with new characters in 1975.
Founded by Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath, the X-Men are a group of young people who are hated and feared because they are different. In his upstate New York "School for Gifted Youngsters," Xavier trains his students to hone their talents to fight against evil, while maintaining the dream that Mutants and ordinary humans can coexist in peace.
While Xavier's ethnicity is unclear, he lived for a time in Israel and was lover to Holocaust survivor Gabrielle Haller, with whom he bore a son, David. Xavier's oldest friend is Erik Magnus, an Auschwitz survivor whom he met in Israel after WWII. Magnus' mutant control of metal led him to become Magneto, the Master of Magnetism, sometimes ally and more often enemy to the X-Men.
Katherine ("Kitty") Pryde, a Jewish girl from Chicago with the power to phase through solid objects, joined the X-Men in the January 1980 issue of that comic book. Kitty was often depicted wearing a Jewish star around her neck, which she used to protect herself against a vampire (Uncanny X-Men 159). In a later issue (Uncanny X-Men 199, November 1985), Kitty attended a Holocaust memorial event at which she spoke in honor of her grandparents.
The X-Men are a metaphor for the paradoxical nature of being a Jew in America. Like Jews, they are gifted with unique talents and are capable of doing great things for human society, but are often feared, mistrusted, and hated because they are different.
- Jules Feifer, Great Comic Book Heroes (1965)
- Will Eisner, Contract With God (1978), To the Heart of the Storm (1991), A Family Matter (1998),Comics and Sequential Art (1985), "The Spirit" (various reprints are available).
- Chabon's "Author's Note," at the end of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, contains a number of worthwhile references about Prague, New York, Houdini, the Golem, comic books, and other topics.
- CNN Article about Chabon